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Last week, I binged on the new Netflix series “The Chair,” staring Sandra Oh. Universities rarely are the setting for dramas, unlike hospitals where Sandra Oh first made her mark in ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy.” Probably for good reason: compared to hospitals the stakes on campuses aren’t so much life and death.

“The Chair” is set at fictional Pembroke University. There are plenty of reviews of the dramedy here in Slate or The Los Angeles Times, if you’re interested. As I watched the six episodes over a few nights, I was struck by the divide in how the show imagines students: they are either coddled activists who get in the way of faculty research or they demand professors who are enthusiastic and involve students in their learning.

“When was the last time you read your student evaluations?” Oh asked a senior professor played by Holland Taylor.

“1987,” the colleague deadpanned.

It’s not a response that most tuition-paying parents would appreciate. Nor is it the mindset needed by faculty after a year of interrupted learning because of the pandemic.

This fall, colleges will be expected to find ways to re-engage students or risk losing them to other institutions or having them drop out altogether.

☕️ Good morning, and thanks for reading NEXT. Today’s edition is 1,700 words and a 4.5-minute read. If someone forwarded this to you, please subscribe here.

⚡️Breaking: A repeat of the fall of 2020? More than 300 undergrads tested positive for Covid-19 in the first week of classes at Duke University, leading the institution late yesterday to mandate masks, suspend group dinners, and offer remote courses. FYI: the first men’s basketball game at Cameron Indoor Stadium is November 12, the final home opener for the university’s legendary coach, Mike Krzyzewski.


?Thursday at Noon ET/9 a.m. PT, Ned Johnson will be joining me for NEXT on LinkedIn Live. Ned is the co-author of the new book, What Do You Say?: How to Talk with Kids to Build Motivation, Stress Tolerance, and a Happy Home.

  • To watch, go to my LinkedIn page or click +FOLLOW on my profile to be notified when we’re live (the conversation will also be archived there).

? Applications are open for the next cohort of the Arizona State University/Georgetown University Academy for Innovative Higher Education Leadership. The program is now in its seventh year and is the premier training ground for deans, associate provosts, and senior vice presidents who want to lead organizational change at colleges and universities. More information and application materials can be found here.

A Lost Class

Of the 2.6 million students who entered college as first-time freshmen in the fall of 2019, 74% returned to college last fall in the middle of the pandemic, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Why It Matters: The pressure has been on colleges for higher graduation rates, better retention, and more engaged students. The so-called persistence rate measured by the Clearinghouse—the percentage of students who return to any college for their second year even if they transfer—is a critical metric. So, too, is the retention rate, which looks at those who return to their own institution.

  • The overall persistence rate dropped 2 points—its lowest level since 2012—and after four years of remaining steady.  

“That 2 percent really represents a big hit if you think of all the work that institutions have put into increasing student success and how hard it can be to move the needle by very much at all,” Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, told me during a webcast I hosted on the topic last week.

What’s happening: Colleges have deployed a variety of tactics over the last decade to improve student success, putting in place so-called intrusive advising so that they didn’t wait for students to come to them at the first sign of trouble—all of it powered by data on learning that tracks where students get stuck.

  • Georgia State University, which has increased its graduation rate by some 25 percentage points in 15 years through a relentless focus on student data, pivoted many of their in-person interactions with students to the virtual world during the pandemic, Tim Renick, executive director of the National Institute for Student Success at Georgia State, told us during the webcast.
  • The university, for instance, within days of starting the semester last year, flagged students who didn’t log on to online classes or did so only for a few minutes. It then reached out to them to see if they needed help—whether academic, financial, or mental health services.
  • Signing on to online classes was a more reliable predictor of students who might be in trouble, Renick said, compared to in-person courses. Why? Students might not have signed on to the university’s learning management system previously but still came to class. With online classes, signing on is the only way they attend.

By the numbers: The number of contacts between advisors and students at Georgia State went up during the pandemic, with more than 100,000 one-on-one meetings.

  • Like many colleges and universities, it was easier for Georgia State to engage upperclass students who had already been on campus before the pandemic.
  • But last year’s freshmen were a different story everywhere, even at Georgia State: 20-30% of the university’s freshmen dropped courses or failed classes.

The fix: This summer, Georgia State ran an “accelerator” for those students with a slate of courses to make up for what they didn’t learn during the pandemic.

  • 700 students enrolled with the help of federal stimulus dollars; 500 of them ended up completing classes with a grade of a C or better.
  • That’s worse than Georgia State’s typical non-pass rate. But Renick reminded me that the university was starting from a deficit since none of the students in the program had passed the courses the first time around.

Bottom line: The college graduating class of 2024 might be the “lost class,” with smaller numbers going forward until commencement and students who struggle to keep up after a year of remote learning, or worse, drop out.

  • The question is how much further into the future these trends will continue. This year’s freshmen—the Class of 2025—also had a year of interrupted learning, in high school. And then there’s this year’s high school seniors, going on two-plus years of interrupted learning because of the pandemic.

Key takeaway: The faculty at fictional Pembroke U. (or many real campuses) might not like it, but colleges need to become more “student-centered” after the pandemic, with a more seamless experience for undergraduates on their path to graduation.

  • Here’s a good example from Renick: The federal government gave money to higher ed in three different stimulus bills, and a big chuck of it was required to go to students. Many colleges asked students to complete an application to access the money. Georgia State did. But the university also mined its own financial aid databases. “After all, we know the financial situation of most of our students,” Renick said.
  • Only 6,000 students filled out an application at Georgia State for additional aid, but 70,000 received aid because the university knew they needed help.
  • “Why do we make students fill out so many forms,” Renick said. “That is just one thing that gets in the way of student success.”  

? For the full webcast on demand, register here (work email address required).

Dispatch from Colorado

Speaking of federal stimulus dollars, my friend Alison Griffin, who keeps track of higher ed in Colorado and writes a regular newsletter of her own, “Boundless Potential,” told me over the weekend that Colorado is thinking about how to use its federal dollars not to simply plug holes in budgets created by the pandemic, but to focus on the future economy, post-pandemic.

Alison writes: “A new Economic Recovery Task Force will hold a series of public meetings before delivering recommendations to the full General Assembly and Governor early in 2022.

  • At the same time, a bill signed by Governor Polis (HB21-1330) authorizes federal funds to re-engage students who have some college, but no degree. The Colorado Commission on Higher Education has also convened a task force to reimagine the role of postsecondary education to build economic resiliency and strengthen the state’s workforce.”
Nearly all top-ranked campuses offer pre-college programs for high school students

A Leg Up in Admissions?

A headline in Columbia University’s student newspaper last week caught my attention: “Columbia’s largest high school program raked in $20 million during the pandemic, but what are students paying for?”

What’s happening: While reporting my book on admissions and being embedded in the selection process at three selective universities, I often saw applications come across from students who had attended “pre-college” programs at that institution or others. These are special summer programs for high-school students to take classes on a college campus.

  • If the applicant had gone to the summer program at the college where they were now applying for admission, a reference to the pre-college experience often made it into one of their essays, especially if the prompt was why do you want to attend this college.
  • While these programs aren’t explicitly advertised as giving students a leg up in the admissions process at elite colleges, the campuses don’t do much to discourage that thinking.
  • In the year I spent inside the process, I never saw an applicant get in because they went to a summer program. In one case, a weaker applicant was helped by a recommendation from a college faculty member who taught in the summer program.

The big picture: Of the top 40 schools ranked in U.S. News & World Report, all but one—Dartmouth—offer some sort of summer program for high school students (and, in some cases, even middle schoolers), according to this must-read 2019 piece on pre-college programs in the Washington Monthly.

? The story in the Columbia U. paper by Zach Schermele is another example of great reporting in a student newspaper and makes me confident about the future of journalism. Read the article here.


Kickoff to Another Season of Future U.
Kickoff to Another Season of Future U.

So much for the much-heralded “hot vax summer.” As Michael Horn and I return from our summer break on the Future U. podcast, we continue to talk about the impact of Covid on higher ed and catch up on the news headlines, from the sale of edX to the Supreme Court’s NCAA ruling, as well as preview what’s to come on Season 5.

Where Can I Major In...?
Where Can I Major In…?

For counselors, parents, and students here is a great tool to help seniors find colleges that offer the majors they’re considering. It’s from Jon Boeckenstedt, a vice provost at Oregon State University and author of the blog, Higher Ed Data Stories, where he illuminates patterns and trends in higher ed data.

A Different Way to Rank Colleges
A Different Way to Rank Colleges

The Washington Monthly rankings were released on Monday. The magazine ranks four-year colleges based on their contribution to the public good in three broad categories: social mobility, research, and providing opportunities for public service. As a result, the rankings produce a very different outcome than the U.S. News rankings: 17 of the top 30 schools on the Monthly’s list of top national universities are public; in the U.S. News ranking, 25 of the top 30 national universities are privates.

Until next time, Cheers — Jeff

To get in touch, find me on TwitterFacebookInstagram, and LinkedIn.

Jeff has written about higher education for more than two decades and is a New York Times bestselling author of three books. His latest, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, was published in September...